Coach can help you make or break an accent

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(Host) Ever wanted to put on a foreign accent?

David Stern is your man. He’s coached Hollywood actors to sound like regional characters, and now the part-time Vermonter makes training tapes and cd’s for just about anyone who wants to sound like someone else.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright visited his audio publishing business in Lyndonville, starting with a rapid-fire round-the-world tour.

(Albright) You could easily miss the low-key sign in the storeforont window for Dialect Accent Specialists even if you go bowling across the street. Inside, around the corner from the a flamingo pi ata and a pile of dog toys beloying to the office manager’s greyhound are two stock rooms. One holds instructional tapes for people who want to reduce their accents. Another houses more than two dozen recordings for customers – mostly actors – who want to acquire accents and clearly, Stern can do them all.

(Stern) "This is a London or Cockney accent. Down here we go to the place of my birth, or New York City, various parts of the American South over here. These are the Irish dialects and training materials. These are the Scottish accents training material up here, what else we got here?"

(Albright) A few of Stern’s two dozen recordings are for customers who want to reduce their accents, but most are for people who need to pick up new ones. Sales hover around a quarter of a million dollars a year. Dialect Accent Specialists set up as a one man-shop in Hollywood in the early nineteen eighties and moved to Lyndonville about fifteen years ago.

Stern’s wife was then teaching at Lyndon State College and he was building a national reputation as a voice coach. He now teaches speech at the University of Connecticut. His own knack for parrotry, he says, showed up when he was very young:

(Stern) "The whole business of playing with accents probably started when My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956. My father brought home the original cast album, put it on the record player and Ii immediately started doing Cockney."

(Albright) In high school and college theater, Stern snagged the accent roles. But he bailed out of drama for a while, got a Phd. in speech theory, and landed on Penn State’s theater faculty. That’s when he decided to head for Hollywood. When he got there, he discovered teaching accents to actors wasn’t as easy as it had been for him to mimic by ear. He had to develop a very physical training method. Here, for example, is how his Scottish brogue tape begins:

(Stern) "Now before we actually examine the specific count changes, the consonant and vowel substitutes between a Standard American speech pattern and a Scottish dialect we’re first going to look at changes that take place in the overall resonance of the voice."

(Albright) In pretty short order, Stern picked up major clients – Vanessa Redgrave, for example, Cicely Tyson, Victoria Tennant, Julia Roberts, Forest Whitaker. Liam Neeson, for an early role, had to sound like a southern redneck. Stern says Neeson’s own accent wasn’t easy to drop.

(Sternn in a Belfast accent) "Liam’s from northern ireland and talks like this if You’re interviewing him normally."

(Albright) But that’s not the way Neeson, coached by Stern, sounds in this clip from the 1982 film, Next of Kin.

(Neeson) "Chicago not me brother."

(Albright) Scholars disagree on how exactly people acquire accents in childhood – some place more emphasis on genetics, others on aural imitation. But most, including Stern say that people who live in geographically isolated areas tend to hold onto their accents, even when they move.

(Stern) "Depends on how young they were when they started moving around and how long they stay in a given area. When they are, oh, say between 10 and 15 and 16 years old."

(Albright) That’s because puberty changes the brain’s ability to adapt to new language behaviors.

Stern says rural American accents are harder to teach than European or English ones because Americans use fewer facial muscles to form their words.

(Franklin) "I just want to please him but you know I’m really Trying to change myself through this play."

(Albright) That’s actress Tara Franklin, practicing the accent she’s been learning from Stern for her current leading role in Educating Rita at the Berkshire Theater
Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As Rita, she’s referring to her fictional educator, Frank, but she says Stern has also been an invaluable help in preparing the role.

(Franklin) "He really places a lot of emphasis in what you are discovering in the moment as an actor and how the dialect follows that."

(Albright) As a former actor himself, Stern agrees to end our Lyndonville interview in the voice of a northeastern Kingdom farmer. He puckers up his mouth as if he’s Just eaten a lemon so that the sound comes out of a tiny hole, as his lips scarcely move:

(Stern) "Well if I had this old style farm accent from the Northeast Kingdom Id’ say in a very reserved sort of Way, Charlotte, it’s been an absolute pleasure having You here and I hope you don’t get lost on your way back to the studio."

(Albright) For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.

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